Free Software Foundation Explains GPL 3.0 Vision

The co-authors of GPLv3 release a document giving the rationale behind the changes proposed to the open-source license.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—The Free Software Foundation on Monday released a 21-page document that explains the rationale for the changes it has proposed to the GNU General Public License in the first draft discussion document of GPL 3.0.

The document was released at the First International Conference on GPLv3 here at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

"Our goal is for the GPLv3 public discussion process to be as transparent and accessible as possible.

"We look forward to receiving many informative and helpful comments on the draft of GPLv3 from all relevant viewpoints across the free software community," said Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation and the licenses original author, and Eben Moglen, the FSFs general counsel, who drafted the first discussion version.

While computer technology has changed since 1991, these changes were not primarily what motivated them to revise the GPL, but rather "the maintenance of users freedoms," they wrote in the document.

In fact, the principal challenges to the free software community have been changes in the law, they wrote, especially the "unwise and ill-considered application of patent law to software. Software patents threaten every free software project, just as they threaten proprietary software and custom software."

Any program could be destroyed or crippled by a software patent belonging to someone who has no other connection to the program, they said, adding that most countries have followed the direction of the United States in allowing software to be patented to at least some degree, and, by the end of the decade, commentators were criticizing the GPL for doing too little to combat patents.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols commentary here putting software patents in terms of mutually assured destruction.

"A programs own license cannot protect it from the threat of software patents. The only real solution to the problem of software patents is to abolish them. However, we can protect against attempts by some participants in a programs development to use patents against other participants," Stallman and Moglen wrote.

GPLv3 brings an explicit patent license that covers any patents held by the programs developers, replacing the implicit license on which GPLv2 relied.

GPLv3 also implements a narrow scheme of patent retaliation against those who undertake this precise form of aggression.

"Our draft of GPLv3 makes clear that we do not entirely share the current enthusiasm of others in the free software community for including broad forms of patent retaliation in licenses. Theorists of patent retaliation have, in our view, overestimated the deterrent value of denying access to free software," Moglen and Stallman said.

The draft license distinguishes between activities of a licensee that are permitted without limitation and activities that trigger additional requirements.

The basic freedoms to privately modify and run the program are guaranteed, but the right to privately modify and run the program is terminated if the licensee brings a patent infringement lawsuit against anyone for activities relating to a work based on the program.

"This narrowly targeted patent retaliation provision is the only form of patent retaliation that GPLv3 imposes by its own force. We believe that it strikes a proper balance between preserving the freedom of a user to run and modify a program, and protecting the rights of other users to run, modify, copy and distribute code free from threats by patent holders," they said

/zimages/3/28571.gifTo read about IBMs grant to open-source software users of access to innovations covered by 500 of its software patents, click here.

The provision was particularly intended to discourage a GPL licensee from securing a patent directed to unreleased modifications of GPL code and then suing the original developers or others for making their own equivalent modifications, the rationale document said.

Next Page: DRM threatens free software.